July 3, 2020

Winnipeg
21° C, Partly cloudy

Full Forecast

WEATHER ALERT

Help us deliver reliable news during this pandemic.

We are working tirelessly to bring you trusted information about COVID-19. Support our efforts by subscribing today.

No Thanks Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Ibsen's message still resonates in his most famous work

Norwegian great's drama continues to pack a wallop, 140 years later

The Torvald family is pictured as a slice of domestic bliss, but the pretty portrait is shattered in the drama's stunning climax. (Dylan Hewlett)

The Torvald family is pictured as a slice of domestic bliss, but the pretty portrait is shattered in the drama's stunning climax. (Dylan Hewlett)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2019 (517 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The opening scenes in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House painstakingly present a picture of domestic bourgeoisie bliss as experienced in Norway of the late 19th century. It is a rendering of playful love in the family Helmer, headed by patriarch Torvald (Kevin Klassen), an upwardly mobile lawyer and bank manager, his apparently indulged wife Nora (Shannon Taylor), and their three young children.

One could generously attribute Torvald’s attitude toward his wife as a symptom of the sexism of the era. He demonstrates affection, but it is generally expressed in words of precious condescension, such as referring to Nora as a child or a "little squirrel."

Ultimately, the picture proves to be an elaborate lie, one that sets the audience up to have the rug pulled out from under in a climax that retains its sheer radical power 140 years after the play first premièred.

While A Doll’s House may not be the biggest production in the Master Playwright Festival’s all-Ibsen program — that distinction goes to the upcoming Royal MTC mainstage production of contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath’s speculative sequel A Doll’s House Part 2 — it may still deserve a place as the fest’s flagship show, demonstrating precisely why the Norwegian Ibsen was such an important, game-changing playwright in the first place.

Nora's (Shannon Taylor) life is changed after a visit from her friend Christine (Toni Reimer), who has some news to share. (Dylan Hewlett)

Nora's (Shannon Taylor) life is changed after a visit from her friend Christine (Toni Reimer), who has some news to share. (Dylan Hewlett)

A spark is destined to set the Torvald family aflame: When she gets a visit from a more worldly childhood friend Christine Linde (Toni Reimer), Nora confesses that years earlier, in a bid to save the life of the ailing Torvald, she took out a private loan from a sketchy lawyer, Nils Krogstad (Cory Wojcik). She has secretly been scrimping and working to pay off the debt.

Unfortunately, as Torvald’s career ascends, he has set his sights on firing Krogstad from the bank, pompously citing his underling’s past moral failings. Krogstad, who still holds Nora’s I.O.U., bearing the forged signature of Nora’s late father, attempts to pressure Nora to change her husband’s mind, promising dark retribution if she fails.

The crisis puts Nora in turmoil. She can’t believe she might face legal jeopardy for her good intentions. (She is as naive as her husband believes her to be.) When Krogstad sends a letter to Torvald exposing her, she recognizes the crisis but holds out the hope that "something wonderful will happen." In the meantime, she distracts Torvald with preparations to dance a tarantella at a fancy dress ball. (It’s a fitting metaphor: The tarantella is a "frenzied" dance once thought to be a cure for a tarantula bite.)

It’s difficult to talk about A Doll’s House without a discussion of its lollapalooza of a third act, especially since its revelations tend to throw the first two acts in sharp relief as an elaborate deception.

Yet even now, one is in awe of how Ibsen subtly makes the case that women constitute a social underclass, delineated in the stories of the family nanny Anne-Marie (Jennifer Lyon), who is forced to abandon her own child to raise young Nora, or Christine’s confession as to the reason she had to abandon her impoverished lover for the sake of supporting her family.

Shannon Taylor and Kevin Klassen command the stage as Nora and Torvald Helmer.  (Dylan Hewlett)

Shannon Taylor and Kevin Klassen command the stage as Nora and Torvald Helmer. (Dylan Hewlett)

Director Rona Waddington keeps it a period story, but embellishes it with a high-tech sheen of screens and projected images (courtesy of lighting designer Hugh Conacher) layered over the homely accoutrements of the Helmer home. The resulting anachronistic clash raises the question: Might it not have been better to set the whole play in a modern setting? Given the current neo-conservative state of affairs these days, it wouldn’t be a stretch.

Anyway, the tech feels a bit of an unnecessary distraction more than augmentation, given the strength of the actors. Klassen is a fine Torvald, whose mask of indulgent benevolence proves to be paper-thin. Reimer also distinguishes herself playing Kristine as a wised-up foil to Nora’s sheltered heroine.

But ultimately, Taylor commands the stage, gently but firmly adding layers of complexity to a character on the road to cataclysmic self-realization. Taylor gives heart and soul to Nora Helmer, perhaps the first woman in modern theatre to speak truth to her powerlessness.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

Read full biography

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.

To those who have made donations, thank you.

To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.

The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.

After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.

If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.

We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.

The Free Press would like to thank our readers for their patience while comments were not available on our site. We're continuing to work with our commenting software provider on issues with the platform. In the meantime, if you're not able to see comments after logging in to our site, please try refreshing the page.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.

Advertisement

Advertise With Us